31-year-old NRI heralds silent agricultural revolution in India

Oct 06, 2013, 19:50 IST | Dhiman Chattopadhyay

Rikin Gandhi, a 31-year-old Indian-American who'd never seen an Indian village till 2006, is now heading a pan-India movement called Digital Green that sees farmers across 2,000 villages shoot videos of best seeding and farming practices they employ and screen them to fellow villagers every fortnight.

Till date, these empowered farmers have shot 2,600 such videos, which have also received a million hits on YouTube. Gandhi, whose story is now being featured on a BBC World News show called Digital Indians , tells Dhiman Chattopadhyay about the silent revolution he and his mates are ushering in and his organisation’s future plans

For someone who today is championing the cause of how to make the most of what’s on the ground, Rikin Gandhi spent a lot of his childhood and teenage years looking up at the stars. Gandhi, who grew up in New Jersey (his parents moved to the US before he was born), remembers cutting out articles on astronauts from the Philadelphia Inquirer. In fact, after getting his license to fly, he applied for a pilot’s job with the US Navy to get on to the space shuttle programme.

Rikin Gandhi, pioneer of the Digital Green movement

But fate had other plans. A minor eye problem, which needed corrective laser surgery, meant he ended up joining Oracle instead. And it was during his college and early work years that he figured he could do a lot more on earth than he could in space!

Given that your chilhood visits to India were limited to annual visits to your extended family in Mumbai and Ahmedabad, how did you get interested in rural India and the plight of farmers?
Some of my friends from Oxford had come to India to work on a biodiesel project in 2006. They figured I would be a good guy to have in their project and I agreed, just for the heck of it. It was my first brush with rural India in Beed district. Meanwhile, I’d been reading up about astronauts and I discovered that after returning to Earth, many of them became teachers, farmers and did things that helped life on Earth! The project did not do too well but I ended up being hired by Microsoft India to research on technology for emerging markets.

Research conducted by the Digital Green team shows that more than half the people watching the videos are women.

But then you started Digital Green on your own. Was it easy for someone who grew up in the US, to helm a project in rural India?
Microsoft in Bangalore had a research lab. Luckily they were looking at technology for the emerging markets at the time including ways to improve agricultural produce. Digital Green was born to help farmers across India share best practices knowledge through video footage. Today we have offices in Delhi, Hyderabad, Bhubaneshwar, Bhopal and Bangalore and reach out to nearly 1,50,000 farmers in over 1,000 villages.

How does Digital Green Work?
We partner with different NGOs and government departments in various states and then train between four and six farmers in each district, to become community filmmakers. No, honestly! We train a few handpicked farmers in each district, to make and show short videos where they record their problems, share solutions and highlight success stories. They are given handheld, battery- operated cameras to shoot and handheld pico projectors to show the videos to small groups of people in electricity-starved villages. The job of my team is to ensure that each film is technically sound. Believe it or not, we already have a bank of 2,600 videos, which are being shown to farmers across seven states. As a rule, our partnering NGOs or concerned government departments also follow up to see whether a film that has been shown in a village, say a month back, has brought about desired changes in their lives.

Digital Green partners with NGOs and trains a few handpicked farmers in each district to shoot best seeding and farming practises

So have the videos had the desired effect so far?
Our data shows that 41 per cent of the farmers, who watched any of these videos in the last two months, have adopted at least one of the best practices they have seen. More than half the people watching these videos are women. We show region-specific films in each of these villages every fortnight. We have reached out to 2,000 villages till now and hope to touch 10,000 villages by 2015. The videos are in 20 different languages. We have also set up an online video library where all these videos are categorised according to climate conditions, stages of farming, kind of produce and other sub categories.

Did you have any special method to get the farmers to watch these videos?
The videos are by the farmers, for the farmers. They are demonstrative, have interviews and are often laced with local music. They showcase the farmer as the protagonist, producer and exhibitor, increase their status and empower them with new tools. More importantly, they help in sharing farming technologies. We call the videos the Pop Idol for farmers. They talk about elementary questions that often cloud farmers’ minds: How do you select a crop? How do you prepare your land and nursery beds? How do you transplant crops? How do you remove weeds to get a healthier crop?

So what’s next?

Like I said, we aim to reach out to 10,000 villages across more states by 2015. Our video library is getting larger and different NGOs and government departments are now picking up these videos and making similar ones to suit farmers in their home districts/states. Our aim is to make sure every farmer in every village of India can share their success stories so that each of them help others in another part of the country, improve their agricultural productivity and become happier and more prosperous farmers.

What about your dreams of being an astronaut?
That’s on hold for now. There are far more critical things to do right here on Earth. BBC World News show, Digital Indians series, tells stories of five successful technological innovators and explores their distinct connections with India. Other than Gandhi, the 10-minute episodes, being shown between hourly newscasts since October 2, profile the likes of Nandan Nilekani, Ben Gomes, Ruchi Sanghvi and Sanjeev Bikhchandani

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